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Character Driven 

GIGI ASIAN BISTRO's offerings of Thai curries, Chinese chicken dishes, Vietnamese spring rolls and Indonesian satay give true meaning to the term "pan-Asian."

GiGi Asian Bistro is the Conan O'Brien of the Mid-City restaurant scene: It's funny-looking and awkward but confident enough in its own idiosyncrasies to pull it off.

Set beside a plating and polishing shop on a leafy residential boulevard, GiGi's pale blue structure could be another small-family rental if it weren't for the sign out front. Matching white doors dominate its facade; opening the correct one (even on my third visit I tried the locked one first) deposits you into a compact, shady dining room with colorful tongue-and-groove walls and wood beams crisscrossing beneath an arched ceiling.

It's a peaceful place, even considering the television and the rattling air conditioning unit that keeps the climate bearably sticky. I passed one lunch watching -- or rather reading -- an Adam Sandler movie on close captioning. Two weeks later the Democratic National Convention played at low volume. The furnishings in here are a hodgepodge of economic necessity and artistic intent. Sheets of red and peach vinyl protect all 10 square tabletops, except for the one that's a giant Coca-Cola bottle cap. Cartoonish French magazine ads for confiture, chocolat and Snapple brighten the restroom. A classroom-size blackboard lists all the available bubble tea flavors, as well as many that aren't available. Papaya is a tease, but the green apple flavor usually pulls through, creating a blended ice drink that's like a Jolly Rancher creamsicle.

If you're not overcome with the strong sense that someone is winging it here BEFORE you open GiGi's pan-Asian menu, its melange of Thai curries, Chinese chicken dishes, Vietnamese spring rolls and Indonesian satay should do it. Furthermore, while anyone with an elementary familiarity with Asian cookery will recognize the names of most selections, nearly every dish tastes just a little different than expected. There's an exaggerated intensity to the sweet, tart and salty components, especially in the Thai dishes, and surprise ingredients are frequent.

The thin, coconut milk-based Thai green curry, for example, struck a recognizable harmony of chile heat, fruity sweetness and untamed herbs; it also possessed the unusual satay-like savor of peanut butter. Similarly, the most outstanding component of a Vietnamese vermicelli noodle salad (bun) was its unfamiliar topping of candy-sweet, caramelized onions and ginger. An aromatic Thai coconut soup (tom kha) was brisk and sweet -- like under-ripe pineapple dipped in sugar -- and lime zest replaced the customary slivers of kaffir lime leaf. As with most dishes, the soup's peculiarities were more pleasant than disturbing. I emptied the bowl.

A pervasive, jellied sweet-and-sour sauce shot through with red chile bits, and sometimes with a forceful garlic flavor, was a reminder of too many bad Chinese meals -- funny how it grew on me by its fourth appearance. A memorable lemon flan likewise acted like none I'd ever had before; richer than butter, it clung to an overturned spoon with vacuum-like force.

Perhaps the variances in GiGi's food result from a Filipino touch. Both owner Abegail Abreu and the other full-time cook, Leah Picornell, are of Filipino heritage (Abreu is half-Chinese but grew up in the Philippine Islands). The friends prepare Filipino stir-fried noodles (pancit) per special request, and Abreu envisions a future sweetened with Filipino pastries. For the time being, though, their experiences cooking at the late, great Sabai's Thai Cuisine shape GiGi's fortes. (Sabai's was one of those terrific restaurants that was never as busy as it deserved to be.)

The Thai Basil with beef lacks personality -- and basil. Still, two diners could construct a winning Thai sampler dinner by ordering the lipstick-shaped fried spring rolls, ginger beaming through the sausage-like pork and shrimp forcemeat. From there I would graduate to the electrical storm of salty fish sauce, hot chiles and sour lime that dresses a grilled beef and herb salad; followed by chicken and sweet potato communing in a wash of mussaman curry, a peanutty sauce with soft citrus highlights.

Abreu, who opened GiGi in February, seems to encourage her restaurant to adapt to the neighborhood, which accounts in part for its offbeat personality. The walls host a rotating collection of local art, and the minute room somehow stages occasional burlesque shows. It's the kind of casual, community space that welcomes even single diners without pestering or isolating them. Some neighbors spot each other and just nod; two women merged tables once they realized they were both alone.

Tender, bone-in pork chops steeped in lemon grass and a little too much sodium are the favorite of one neighbor I know. The juicy Indonesian Fried Chicken is my own weakness, and its presence on nearly every table indicates that I have company. The Indonesian "curry" seasonings eluded me, and the heavy drizzle of sweet-and-sour sauce was moot, but this is the kind of no-batter, brittle-skinned fried chicken that makes you gnaw to the tips of the oil-browned bones. Every entree comes in two sizes. The small is a single-meal steal; super-sizing to the large costs an extra dollar or two. I realize that $5.95 may not buy much anymore, but it will buy you two unforgettable leg-thigh pieces and a turn at one of Mid-City's quirkiest tables.

click to enlarge At GIGI ASIAN BISTRO, the Thai beef salad, with its hot - chiles and sour lime, could form one part of a Thai - sampler platter. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • At GIGI ASIAN BISTRO, the Thai beef salad, with its hot chiles and sour lime, could form one part of a Thai sampler platter.
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